North Korea’s Science and Technology Journals: Getting to Know the Scholars (Part 2)
Part 1 of this two-part series provided a list of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) science and technology (S&T) journals that are available abroad and noted the limited amount of information they contain compared to journals published elsewhere in the world. Part II will focus on what can be learned from these journals about North Korea’s research priorities, the authors themselves, and sources of S&T information available to them.
An Imperfect Guide to Pyongyang’s Priorities
Relatively short as they are on details, North Korea’s S&T journals can serve as a useful guide to understanding the country’s priorities and/or emerging interests in science and technology—at least to some extent. For example, one of the newer journals available overseas is the quarterly Computer Science, which appears to have started in 2000. Its launch at the dawn of the new millennium suggests Pyongyang’s growing interest in that area. Another example is an article published early this year in the Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences on international developments in mRNA research; the second endnote was to an article in a major US journal on mRNA’s promise in combating COVID-19. From this article’s publication, we can cite published evidence of Pyongyang’s concern regarding COVID-19 and its reading of US scientific literature to keep current with, and perhaps seek to build upon, Western research and development (R&D) in this area.
Generally, if one were to create a database comprising all available articles of the 40 journals, one would then have the means to search for trends in priorities. How many computer science articles have there been in the past 10 years? What areas of computer science appear most frequently? Which authors have published most frequently? Searching a database would yield some possibly useful data on Pyongyang’s priorities.
However, we must take into account the many pitfalls to such an approach. One obvious one is that the available paper trail by itself cannot answer some questions. For example, the Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science ceased publication at the end of 2017. In its place, the university began publishing from 2018 individual journals for chemistry, geoenvironmental science and geology, information science, life sciences, mathematics, and physics. Do these titles represent North Korea’s recent scientific priorities? What of atomic science, a major part of the university’s previous Natural Science journal? Does the absence of an individual journal for atomic energy mean that Kim Il Sung University has devalued nuclear research? Do the many more total pages of scientific research published since 2018 (each new journal issue is roughly the same number of pages as the previous Natural Science journal) indicate that Kim Il Sung University has vastly expanded its science faculty? We cannot answer those questions by simply reading the 40 available journals.
Another clear pitfall is that the 40 journals available abroad are only a fraction of North Korea’s S&T publishing output. For example, an article on web server technology in the Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science has for its first endnote a reference to Pyongyang’s Bulletin of the Korea Computer Center. That this bulletin of the Korea Computer Center (KCC), reputedly a key organization in North Korea’s information science infrastructure, is not readily available outside North Korea suggests how much remains unknown and unavailable.
Reading References to Learn About the Authors
The references at the end of an article can serve as a starting point for learning something about an author when an article lacks basic information like the author’s affiliation. In some cases, an author will include a citation of an article they wrote that was published abroad. For example, Han Yong Nam co-authored with Kim Myong Song an article published in the Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science, citing in the fifth of five endnotes previous work of his published by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The North Korean journal gives us no information on Han; the British one informs us (in endnote five) that he wrote the paper with Chinese colleagues from the State Key Laboratory of Inorganic Synthesis and Preparative Chemistry, College of Chemistry, Jilin University, and Changchun 130012, and that Han is from the Department of Chemistry, Kim Il Sung University. Thanks to the endnote, we now know that Han is a member of the university’s chemistry faculty and that he seems to have studied in recent years at Jilin University in China. By referring to the foreign journal cited, the article will identify details such as the author’s academic or professional title, place of employment in North Korea, place of study or work abroad, fellow North Korean colleagues, foreign connections and research interests.
While reading the endnotes can be useful in this way, language, translation and naming convention differences make this kind of research challenging. Some common problems include:
- Name order: Names are published in North Korean journals in the traditional Korean order—the surname precedes the given name. For example, the family name of the famous North Korean scientist Ri Sung Gi (리승기, 1905-1996), inventor of the synthetic fabric vinalon, is Ri. Even in the English article summary and table of contents of DPRK journals, his full name would begin with In a Western science journal, his name would likely appear in Western order, where given name is written first: Sung Gi Ri.
- Initials: In the English summaries and tables of contents provided in the North Korean journals, the author’s full name is published. However, that same name may be listed in Western journals with the given name turned into one or two initials. Thus, Ri Sung Gi could appear as S. Ri or S.G. Ri.
- Transliteration: There are a number of systems to transliterate Korean script (hangul, 한글, in the Republic of Korea (ROK); chosongul, 조선글, or urigul, 우리글, in the DPRK) into Roman letters. In the case of Ri Sung Gi, editors outside North Korea, depending on whether they use a system devised in the ROK or the US, may transliterate his name as Ri Sung Ki, Ri Sung-gi, Ri Sung-ki, Ri Seung-gi, Ri Seung-ki, Ri Seung Gi or Ri Seung Ki. In South Korea, Ri is commonly written as Yi, which doubles the number of possibilities provided. When the possibility of initials being used is taken into account, the number of ways in which to transliterate Ri Sung Gi increases.
- Chinese characters: Korean names are written in Korean script in North Korea, but in Chinese characters in Greater China and in Japan, Ri Sung Gi (리승기) then becomes 李升基 . The varied simplifications of Chinese characters undertaken in Asia after World War II add another layer of complication. For example, an author with “Hak” as part of their given name would be 學, the older form, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but 学 in China and Japan. With China being the major destination for DPRK scientists going abroad for advanced study, recognizing a name written in Chinese characters in an endnote to a DPRK article as being identical to that of the author’s is key to finding information on North Korean scientists and engineers.
- Russian alphabet: Korean authors who publish in Russia usually do so in Russian. This adds another layer of complication, as the name will appear in Western order, often with initials in place of the given name. Hence, if Ri Sung Gi (Ли Сын Ги in Cyrillic) published in Moscow, his name would have appeared as Сын Ги Ли, С. Ли or С.Г Ли. Russians also have their own system for transliterating Korean into the Latin alphabet by which a Russian editor would likely render Ri Sung Gi (Li Syn Gi) as Syn Gi Li, S. Li or S.G. Li.
- Beyond transliteration systems: In addition to the various transliteration systems mentioned above, there is also the problem of variants. The Korean surname Ri (often translated as Yi outside the DPRK, especially in South Korea) can also be presented as “Lee.”(Ri/Yi/Lee are all common ways to Romanize the same Korean syllable). Moreover, given names can often be Romanized differently as well. For instance, the first ROK president, Yi Sung-man, was known in the West as Syngman Rhee—a non-standard rendering for both his family and given names. Thus, a name like Ri Sung Gi could potentially appear as differently as Lee Seung-ki, or S. Lee in some instances.
Piecing Together Author Profiles
If analysts, journalists or researchers outside North Korea are armed with the knowledge above, they can more easily search for information on North Korean scientists and engineers by carefully examining the references at the end of DPRK S&T journals. Below are some examples of what can be deciphered from these references.
Kim Ju Hyok and Kim Kyong Sol wrote the article “Ground Resonance Analysis Method of Rotor-Fuselage Coupled System with MR Damper,” which appeared in the sixth issue last year of the Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences. The article contains no information on the identity of either author. However, the second of the article’s three endnotes reads “(2) K. Kim et al. Smart Mater. Struct., 25, 7, 075004 (2016).” As explained above, “K. Kim” could be Kim Kyong Sol. In fact, an online search confirms this, as the cited article can be found on the IOPScience website:
“Design and experiments of a novel magneto-rheological damper bifold flow mode”
Kyongsol Kim, Zhaobo Chen, Dong Yu and Changhyon Rim
Published May 24, 2016 © 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd.
Smart Materials and Structures, Volume 25, Number 7
Citation: Kyongsol Kim et al. Smart Mater. Struct. 25 075004
The Article Information section of the work shows Kim Kyong Sol as being affiliated with both the School of Mechatronics Engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Kim Chaek University of Technology (KCUT) in Pyongyang, DPRK. His North Korean colleague, Rim Chang Hyon, is affiliated with the same KCUT department. The two Chinese co-authors hail from the HIT School of Mechatronics Engineering. These clues help illuminate the affiliations of the two DPRK researchers Kim and Rim, making clear that Kim studied at HIT and has at least two Chinese academic colleagues.
Further online searches for Kim and Chen Zhaobo, the article’s corresponding author, lead to a Wall Street Journal article from 2017 that identifies MR damping as a technology related to missile-launch systems and Dr. Chen as an aerospace expert with experience working on military projects. The article further reported that Chen and Kim filed for a Chinese patent in February 2017, claiming their joint work had applications in aerospace and other fields. An American expert cited in the Wall Street Journal article speculated that, although the paper by Chen and Kim had to do with helicopters, Kim could apply the lessons learned in China on MR damping to the development of missiles. Therefore, a single citation in a DPRK article yields not only basic author data that is not found in the article itself, but suggests the author’s possible involvement in Pyongyang’s efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Reading the References to Know the Sources
The endnotes also prove useful in gaining some sense of DPRK S&T publications and the foreign information that North Korean researchers have access to.
As mentioned in Part I of this series, the 40 DPRK S&T titles available abroad are only a fraction of the country’s range of S&T literature. Endnotes provide a better understanding of the literature only available domestically. In effect, citations from those 40 journals can be used to compile a card catalog of DPRK S&T literature that is unavailable outside the country and is, perhaps, largely unknown.
Here are a couple examples from the journals:
- An article in the field of nuclear science and technology by Pak Yong Jin et al., “On the Analytical Method of Solid Samples in the Gas Mass Spectrometer ‘MИ-1201B,’” published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science, includes as one of its three citations a 1998 work by a Pak Sin Nam and others published in the DPRK periodical 원자력 (Atomic Energy). This journal is not on the list of North Korean periodicals for export.
- In information science, the same issue of the journal includes an article, “Voluntary Service Architecture for Raising Connecting-Capability of Clients on the Web Server,” that cites an article from the Bulletin of the Korea Computer Center (조선콤퓨터센터통보), another publication not advertised for export.
This methodology can be used for books as well. By reviewing the endnotes in the 40 journals that are available abroad, one can build over time what amounts to a library catalog of DPRK S&T literature. This yields both additional puzzle pieces for building author profiles and may point to new areas of research and development.
Furthermore, the endnotes provide information on the foreign publications North Korean researchers have access to as well. In the 40 journals examined, the endnotes cited sources published in the United States, Europe, China, Russia and Japan. Pyongyang’s researchers may not have the opportunity to study in countries like the US and Japan, but they have access to the world’s published S&T literature. For example, the first issue of volume 57 (2011) for the Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science includes an article on atomic energy that cites Chinese sources in two endnotes. The first reference is to an article from the Chinese journal 核动力工程 (Nuclear Power Engineering). The second is to a 1988 book written by a Fu Youzhou and published by China’s Atomic Energy Press: 核反应推动力学 (Nuclear Power Engineering).
That said, there is also the challenge of potential mistakes in the endnotes. For example, an information science article in the above issue of Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science includes the following citation of a US cryptology conference’s proceedings:
- (5) D. Jucls et al. Advanced in Cryptology, 1294, 150, 1997.
The brief reference contains three errors. Provided below is the correct, full citation:
- Ari Juels et al. “Security of Blind digital signatures,” 150-164, in Advances in Cryptology – CRYPTO ’97 (17th Annual International Cryptology Conference), Santa Barbara, CA.
In one endnote we see that the author’s abbreviated given name is incorrect, the surname is misspelled, and the first word in the title is miscopied. With these three errors, researchers may not find the reference in an online search.
Beyond DPRK Endnotes
As previously mentioned, other DPRK media, outside of the 40 S&T journals, exists. Most of them are what some might dismiss as propaganda, but these sources still yield information on scientists, engineers, their affiliated organizations and their work in the form of text, photographs and videos.
Provided below is a non-exhaustive list of general DPRK publications and websites that have text, photographs and/or videos related to DPRK S&T:
- Rodong Sinmun (로동신문): daily newspaper of the ruling Workers Party of Korea
- Minju Joson (민주조선): daily government newspaper
- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (조선화보): illustrated monthly propaganda magazine
- Kumsu Kangsan (금수강산): monthly propaganda magazine
- Ryugyong (류경 ryugyongclip.com): online DPRK website featuring news on Kim Il Sung University.
- Thongil Hwabo (통일화보): bimonthly propaganda magazine
- Korea Central Television (조선중앙텔레비죤): news broadcasts and various television shows
Following are some examples of general sources (propaganda) that yield information on scientists beyond what we commonly find in the available S&T journals.
A search of Ryugyong yields a 2018 article on promotions, in which one learns that Hong Kun Ui (홍근의), a department head at KCUT, received the title of professor in April of that year. An online search for his name in English using several variations of transliteration then leads to a 2017 English article in Science Direct for which Professor Hong is the corresponding author:
- Kunui Hong, Eunchol Han, Kwangsong Kang, “Determination of geological strength index of jointed rock mass based on image processing.”
In the article found on Ryugyong, Professor Hong is only described as a KCUT department head. However, via the Science Direct article, we learn of his affiliation with the KCUT Faculty of Mining Engineering, his e-mail address ([email protected]) and the names of two of his KCUT colleagues.
As a second example, a Rodong Sinmun article that was published on March 2, 2022, on page 6, celebrates the career of Song Gwang Chon, a faculty member of Kim Je Won Haeju University of Agriculture, for his contributions to agriculture by developing herbicides. The article not only includes his affiliation, titles and research field, but even a color photograph of Dr. Song.
In another example, the November 2021 issue of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea includes an article on Kim Il Sung University, featuring a photograph of the KISU Advanced Technology Development Institute (첨단기술 개발원) building where the photo caption lists its component institutes.
As a final example, a profile of Pak Kyong Ryong from Issue 2 (March-April), 2022, of Thongil Hwabo describes him as working at KCUT as a researcher in the Juche Steel Laboratory, Ferrous Metal Institute, Faculty of Metal Engineering. The article also notes that he has the titles of Merited Scientist, Professor, and Ph.D. The article offers some details on his life, such as his leaving South Korea some time after Liberation for “the Republic.” This information is much more than we would find about him in a North Korean science journal. Further information is found in the profile’s accompanying color photographs, which show Dr. Pak, some of the books that he has authored, and what appears to be his laboratory, complete with equipment. Careful review of such propaganda photographs has the potential to yield information on the types of equipment found in various North Korean science laboratories, perhaps even to the identification of specific machines. While satellites can show us the roofs of research institutes, propaganda magazines can reveal to us what lies inside them.
Beyond the Korean Peninsula, information on DPRK scientists, engineers, institutions and their activities can be found in international scientific literature and general news. Chinese media of both types carry such information. For example, the Chinese Journal of Northeastern University (Natural Science) publishes articles co-written by North Koreans:
- Kim Sung Hyok, Zhang Hua-guang, Sun Qiu-ye, Zhou Jian-guo, “Consensus-Based Distributed Asymmetric Power Sharing Control in Microgrids,” Vol. 37, Issue 10 (2016).
The paper indicates that Kim, the corresponding author as well as the only Korean among the four co-authors, is affiliated with the Northeast University School of Information Science and Engineering in Shenyang and the KCUT Department of Electrical Cooperation in Pyongyang. Beyond science papers, Chinese media carries news of DPRK delegations visiting Chinese universities and other organizations for S&T exchanges. Similar searches in the media of other countries also yields such information.
Where to Find the Endnotes and Other Information
Analysts, journalists and others who are interested in reading North Korean journals can find them online and in print on KPM and through other vendors. Additionally, Pyongyang has made some of its publications available online in recent years. For example, the KISU website includes access to the university’s science journals. Pyongyang newspapers and other periodicals can also be found on several sites. DPRK S&T journals and other media in print can be found at major depositories like the US Library of Congress, Japan’s National Diet Library and the ROK’s National Library of Korea and the Ministry of Unification North Korea Document Center. The libraries that contain several major publications, such as the Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences, can also be found via the online library catalog WorldCat, which indicates university library holdings in the United States for the journals at Yale, Harvard and Berkeley.
Available DPRK S&T periodicals can serve as the basis for amassing a significant amount of information on the scientists, engineers, institutions and projects of North Korea. This information, in combination with materials found outside of the Korean Peninsula, provide many of the pieces to assemble much of the puzzle that is DPRK S&T.
The journal has no volume number, but issue four of 2021 was the 82nd cumulative issue, which suggests a start date of 2000.
Paek Chol Min and Kim Hak Song, “mRNA Medicine Research and Development, Present State of Its Application and Future Prospects (Part 1),” Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences, the DPR Korea, (January 30, 2022): 69-70.
Rim Ji Won and Rim Thae Jun. “Voluntary Service Architecture for Raising Connecting-Capabilippty of Clients on the Web Server,” Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science 57, no. 1 (January 10, 2011): 40-43.
Kim Myong Song and Han Yong Nam. “Luminescence Characteristics of Eu, Dy Co-Doped Defect Pyrochlore -Type Material,” Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science 63, no.12 (December 10, 2017): 96-98.
In recent years, some Japanese editors have opted to publish Korean names in the Japanese phonetic katakana script.
As a concrete example, Pak Kyong Il and O Phyong A published the paper “A Method of Assessing Comprehensive Potentiality of County Development,” no. 5 (September 30, 2021): 47-48, of the Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences. Three of the four endnotes cite other work by Pak, including an article of his published in the Chinese journal 研究与开发 (Area Research and Development), 22, 1, (2003). Pak cited his own work in Chinese using the Chinese characters for his name: 朴庆日(if it were a Chinese name, it would be transliterated as Piao Qingri).
The Pyongyang article here includes the Pyongyang McCune-Reischauer (M-R) transliteration for the first author and a non-standard (for Pyongyang) variant for the second author, whose name would normally be transliterated as Kim Gyong Sol.
Kim Ju Hyok and Kim Kyong Sol, “MR감쇠기를 설치한 회전날개-동체결합계의 지상공진분석방법,” Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences, DPRK Korea, no. 6 (November 30, 2021): 44-46.
Pak Yong Jin et al, “기체잘량분석기 ‘MИ -1201B’ 에서 고체시료의 분석방법,” Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science 57, no. 1 (January 10, 2011): 70-72.
Kim Song Ji and Pak Pong Mu, “Analysis of Model for LOCA in 5MW NHR,” Journal of Kim Il Sung University: Natural Science 57, no. 1 (January 10, 2011): 67-69.
Note that the name of Professor Hong’s KCUT colleague, Eunchol Han (한은철), is not only written in Western order, but with South Korean transliteration, while the names of Hong and Kang, while in Western order, follow Pyongyang’s version of McCune-Reischauer. This highlights the issue of language complications noted earlier in this article.
Ryo Myong Hui, “협동벌이 기다리는 살초제 박사,” Rodong Sinmun, March 2, 2022, p. 6.
김선경, “주체과학교육의 최고전당: 김일성종합대학, 조선화보,” November 2021, p. 56-65. See http://www.korean-books.com.kp/KBMbooks/ko/periodic/pictorial/20211029165612.pdf.
The journals are found at http://www.ryongnamsan.edu.kp/univ/ko/research/journals. Note that as is typical with numerous Asian websites, DPRK sites are not secure.
These sites include Uriminzokkiri (http://www.uriminzokkiri.com), publications of the DPRK (http://www.korean-books.com.kp) and Naenara (http://www.naenara.com.kp). These sites are also not secure.
WorldCat is useful but incomplete. A search of Columbia University’s online catalog (https://clio.columbia.edu/catalog/) shows that its Starr Library also has copies of the journal.